Is Walmart The Key To Making American Farming More Sustainable?

Are private companies like Wal-Mart the future leaders of food policy?
Are private companies like Wal-Mart the future leaders of food policy?

Every five years or so, Congress passes a revised version of the Farm Bill, a diverse set of laws meant to guide the way that food is grown, sold and consumed in the United States. But a panel of experts at this year’s National Food Policy Conference say there’s a better way to shape U.S. agriculture, and it doesn’t involve Congress at all.

“Given the state of our planet we dont have a moment to lose,” David Festa, head of the Environmental Defense Fund’s West Coast operations, said at the conference. “This is the perfect moment for the private sector to lead.”

Speaking on a panel that was discussing what a national food policy might look like, Festa said that the United States has been too dependent on federal policy to force food policy changes on the ground — a process that can be slow and marred by Congressional gridlock. The USDA has been forced to extend the comment period on its revised dietary guidelines, for instance, because they say that Americans should consume less meat not only because it is unhealthy, but places undue stress on natural resources — a position that has garnered criticism from agriculture groups and legislators.

“Is a top down policy approach the most productive path to environment and food?” Festa asked, arguing that instead of relying on federal policy, consumers should put pressure on private companies to source food in a way that is sustainable. To illustrate that point, Festa turned to Wal-Mart, which is using its position as the country’s largest grocer to exert pressure on its supply chain and give preference to suppliers who use fertilizer more sustainably.


Last fall, Wal-Mart decided to begin tackling agriculture and climate change, introducing their Climate Smart Agriculture Program that focuses on increasing transparency of agricultural yields, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions from their supply chain in the next ten years. As part of the program, Wal-Mart began to take a look at the products that contribute most substantially to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution — and found that grains like soy, corn, and wheat were the primary culprits.

Fertilizer is crucial to agriculture and helps farmers increase their crop yields, but fertilizer that isn’t absorbed into the ground can turn into nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, or be swept away by rain into water sources. When excess fertilizer drains into rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans, it encourages algae growth, which in turn sucks oxygen from the water, creating dead zones where marine life can’t survive. It was fertilizer runoff that caused the algae bloom that shutdown Toledo, Ohio’s water supply for days last summer. Festa claims that fertilizer is “the biggest environmental problem of this century.”

Regulatory framework to limit fertilizer pollution has been slow to emerge. Agricultural runoff isn’t touched by the Clean Water Act, and local governments have had little success in regulating how farmers apply fertilizer to their land — most regulations have been voluntary, giving farmers little incentive to cut back on fertilizer use.

To cut down on fertilizer pollution, Wal-Mart asked its top suppliers to submit fertilizer optimization plans, hoping to reduce 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from its supply chain by 2015 — the equivalent of taking 4.2 million cars off the road.

Working with 15 suppliers of commodity grains — representing 30 percent of food and beverages sold in America — Wal-Mart helped give farmers data and tools to make sure they were using the right amount of fertilizer. Things like soil tests can help farmers know how much and what kind of nutrients the soil needs, and helps them be more precise in their application so less fertilizer is wasted.


Wal-Mart launched the pilot program with 15 business this fall, covering 2.5 million acres of land with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.3 million metric tons. It hopes to eventually expand the program to cover 14 million acres, with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 7 million metric tons.

“This is an area where there’s been no regulatory action,” Elizabeth Sturcken, who heads up the Environmental Defense Fund’s campaign to help Wal-Mart create a more sustainable supply chain, told Bloomberg Business in 2014. “Wal-Mart in effect becomes a new standard in saying that they want fertilizer optimized.”

Wal-Mart isn’t the only private company using the supply chain to exert pressure on the way food is farmed. In late March, Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agricultural commodity traders, pledged to commit to a strict “no-deforestation” policy in its palm and soy oil supply chain. The move marked the first time that an agribusiness had extended deforestation policies to cover soy, which accounts for a huge amount of forest loss in the Amazon basin.

The palm oil industry, once a leading force of deforestation in Indonesia and Malyasia, now sources 96 percent of global palm oil from sources committed to no-deforestation policies, a change in policy that began when the CEO of the world’s largest producer of palm oil decided to require sustainable practices from his company’s supply chain.

Daniel Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture who also spoke on the panel at the National Food Policy Conference, agreed with Festa that Congress’ role in driving food policy might be waning. “More and more, farm policy is going to be done by other people,” he said, “by Wal-Marts, retailers, and cooperatives.”

When Glickman was Secretary of Agriculture, he remembered, conversations about farming in the United States were dominated by commodity crops and a singular focus on productivity. Today, he says, that’s beginning to change.


“There are more and more people interested in diversity of food, local food, organic food,” he said. “We’re going to be less dependent on what the national government does every five years.”